Console-ing Passions 2008

Last weekend I attended the Console-ing Passions conference at UC Santa Barbara. The event, focusing on feminist media studies, has been held roughly every two years since 1992. While it is still primarily concerned with television (as it started as a counter to the predominance of film studies in the 1980s), it has always welcomed papers and presentations on a wide array of media. However, and despite occasional calls to broaden its official purview, it still importantly maintains its central focus on feminist analysis and politics. This focus has helped it maintain a particular sensibility and community over the years, and this year’s event was no exception. Indeed, it was easily one of the best conferences I’ve attended in recent years.

I should say upfront that much of this was due to the setting. Santa Barbara is one of those supernaturally beautiful places, with mountains, the Pacific Ocean, lush vegetation, and near-perfect weather. The UCSB campus, like every other UC campus I’ve ever been to, makes the best of use of this environment, with open spaces, winding walkways, low-slung buildings, and sunlit rooms. The event organizers, UCSB Film and Media Studies professors Anna Everett and Lisa Parks, shrewdly planned the schedule to make the most of this setting, with extended breaks between some sessions, over an hour for lunch each day, and two outdoor receptions (including one on Goleta Beach, adjacent to UCSB).

I bring all this up because it makes a qualitative difference in the conference experience. The best conferences are about what happens in the spaces between the panels: in hallways, restaurants, hotel bars, and (yes) beaches. I’m not as up on my Richard Florida as I should be in this regard, but there’s clearly something about the effective organization of time and space that foster greater intellectual and creative energies. It’s a lesson I hope the leaders of SCMS heed as that conference continues to expand.

The theme for this year’s CP, broadly speaking, was gender and production. Most panels took this issue head-on, presenting work ranging from the theorization of “production” per se, to representations of media production on television, to the conditions and practices of actual media production. This focus indicates the growing expansion of media studies’ objects and methods of study. The days when entire conferences would consist of dozens of individual “readings” of particular films or TV series are thankfully long gone. Instead, effective media scholarship-i.e., “doing” media studies-requires interaction with (if not mastery of) a wide array of theories, methods, media forms, texts, producers, and users. Despite the increased expectations this places on media scholars, students, and practitioners, this is how it should be. Media is too chaotic and important to be carved only into arbitrary approaches or areas of focus. There is so much to learn-about methodologies, about industrial practices, about different formal paradigms, about reception communities-that can benefit us all in ways, I think, that our present moment, with its cultural, economic, technological, political and even biological uncertainties, demands.

That said, CP’s feminist ethos still provides an effective, and critically important, banner under which the new media studies can productively work. At CP, feminism is not so much a discrete approach (as it still tends to be taught) as an overarching principle: i.e., advancing work that broadens our understanding of gendered categories, and contributes to the improvement of the lives of real women and men. Here as well the organization of the event contributed to this goal, as not only media scholars but media producers and media fans interacted in this space; I saw presentations and/or chit-chatted with women television writers, studio executives, porn producers, and media acafen throughout the weekend. As someone who otherwise occupies several central social positions of contemporary American heteronormative patriarchy (white, middle-aged, straight, married, and parenting), I feel it’s important to listen to and engage in these discussions as much as possible.

(That said, I don’t mean to suggest that this makes it all or only “work”; I had a blast all weekend.)

Coming up in the next two installments: CP-presented work on gender in television programming, and work on gender in television production.

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